On Thursday, August 2, 2018, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) jointly proposed a rule to freeze the fuel efficiency standards for vehicles established in 2012. The notice of proposed rulemaking introduces the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule for Model Years 2021-2026 Passenger Cars and Light Trucks (“SAFE Vehicles Rule”) in order to “correct the national automobile fuel economy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions standards to give the American people greater access to safer, more affordable vehicles that are cleaner for the environment.”
EPA and NHTSA designed the 2012 standards to decrease GHG emissions and improve average fuel economy of cars and light trucks annually from 2017 through 2025, culminating in a corporate average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon at the end of that period. The new proposed rule would freeze the standards at 2020 levels for a six-year period, requiring automakers to produce vehicles with an average fuel economy of 37 miles per gallon through Model Year 2026. The Acting Administrator at the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, articulated that these standards are more “realistic” and cost-effective for both manufacturers and families.
The proposed rule also revokes the waiver held by California to authorize its own emissions standards for vehicles and nonroad engines. Under Clean Air Act Section 209, this waiver has given California the ability to set emissions reduction goals since Ronald Reagan’s governorship. Furthermore, the Clean Air Act allowed other states to adopt California’s emission standards under Section 177. In a statement released on Twitter, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger lamented the loss of the 48-year-old waiver, criticizing “fake conservatives” for neglecting to defend state’s rights to make their own policies. Other California officials joined Schwarzenegger in condemning this freeze. Gov. Jerry Brown has sworn to push back against this freeze “in every conceivable way possible.”
In a hearing before the Senate on Wednesday, Wheeler advocated that the rollback could have cost savings of $500 billion for consumers. Moreover, safety has been central to the administration’s argument against tighter fuel standards, suggesting that this proposal would reduce the number of deadly car accidents resulting from the 2012 rule. The NHTSA cites that newer-model-year vehicles are safer, but have been less affordable due to tighter fuel economy standards. Therefore, NHTSA and EPA argue that this proposal would make newer, safer cars more accessible. Wheeler admitted that oil consumption would increase, but that the benefits would outweigh the negatives. Official estimates from the EPA project an increase of 2-3 percent in daily fuel consumption, equaling roughly 500,000 barrels per day. The public will have 60 days to provide feedback once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register.